Well, today sure didn’t turn out like I expected. Four days ago, Lt Col Danes had told me I could go into Konzentrationslager Dachau with them. He’s not a bad guy, Danes. A little sniffy at first about hacks, as most of them are, but since I came ashore with the Screaming Eagles at Omaha Beach, and he’s worked out I’m not some green housewife who’s going to press him for cookie recipes, he’s backed off a little. The 102nd Airborne call me an honorary fellow now, say that when I have my armband on, I’m just one of them. So, the deal was, I was going to follow them into the camp, write my piece about the folks inside, maybe get a few interviews with some of the prisoners about the conditions, and then file. WRGS radio wanted a short piece too, so I had my tape all wound up and ready.
Well, there I was, ready at 6 a.m., armband on and almost shipshape, and darned if he didn’t knock on my door. ‘Why, Lieutenant,’ I joked. I was still fixing my hair. ‘You never told me you cared.’ It’s a running joke with us. He says he’s got pairs of marching boots older than I am.
‘Change of plan, Toots,’ he says. He was smoking, which was unlike him. ‘I can’t take you.’
My hands stilled on my head. ‘You are kidding me, right?’ The Register’s editor was all lined up for this piece. They’d cleared me two pages and no ads.
‘Louanne, it’s … it’s beyond what we thought we’d find. I’m under orders to let nobody through till tomorrow.’
‘Oh, come on.’
‘Seriously.’ He lowered his voice. ‘You know I’d have you in there with me. But, well, you wouldn’t believe what we saw in there yesterday … I’ve been up all night, me and the boys. There are old ladies, kids walking round in there, like … I mean, little kids …’ He shook his head and looked away from me. He’s a big man, Danes, and I swear he was about to sob like a baby. ‘There was a train outside, and the bodies were just … thousands of them … It ain’t human. That’s for sure.’
If he was trying to put me off it had the opposite effect. ‘You gotta get me in there, Lieutenant.’
‘I’m sorry. Strictest orders. Look, one more day, Louanne. Then I’ll give you all the access you need. You’ll be the only reporter in there, I promise.’
‘Yeah. And you’ll still love me afterwards. Oh, come on …’
‘Louanne, nobody but the military and the Red Cross is going in or coming out today. I need every man I have to help out.’
‘Help out with what?’
‘Taking the Nazis into custody. Helping the prisoners. Stopping our men killing those SS bastards for what they seen. Young Maslowicz, when he saw what they done to the Poles, he was like a madman, crying, going crazy. I had to put a non-com on his gun. So I gotta have an airtight guard. And –’ he gulped ‘– we gotta work out what to do with the bodies.’
He shook his head. ‘Yeah, bodies. Thousands of them. They made bonfires. Bonfires! You wouldn’t believe …’ He blew out his cheeks. ‘Anyway, Toots. This is where I need to ask you a favour.’
‘You need to ask me a favour?’
‘I need to leave you in charge of the storage facility.’
I stared at him.
‘There’s a warehouse, out on the edge of Berchtesgaden. We opened it up last night and it’s pretty much stacked to the gills with works of art. The Nazis, Goering, have looted stuff like you wouldn’t believe. The top brass reckons there’s a hundred million dollars’ worth of stuff in there, most of it stolen.’
‘What has this got to do with me?’
‘I need someone I can trust to watch over it, just for today. You’ll have a fire crew at your disposal, and two marines. It’s chaos in the town, and I need to make sure nobody goes in there and nobody goes out. There’s some serious haul in there, Toots. I don’t know much about art, but it’s like – I don’t know – the Mona Lisa or something.’
Do you know how disappointment tastes? Like iron filings in cold coffee. That’s what I tasted when old Danes drove me down to the facility. And that was before I found out that Marguerite Higgins had got into the camps the previous day, with Brigadier General Linden.
It wasn’t a warehouse as such, more a huge grey slab of a municipal building, like a huge school or town hall. He pointed me towards his two marines, who saluted me, and then the office near the main door where I was to sit. I have to say, I couldn’t say no to him, but I took it all with bad grace. It was so obvious to me that the real story was going on down the road. The boys, normally cheerful and full of life, were in huddles, smoking and whey-faced. Their superiors talked quietly with shocked, serious expressions. I wanted to know what they’d found there, horrific as it might be. I needed to be in there, bringing the story out. And I was afraid: every day that slipped by made it easier for the top brass to decline my request. Every day that passed gave my competitors a chance.
‘So, Krabowski here will get you anything you need, and Rogerson will contact me if you have any trouble. You okay?’
‘Sure.’ I put my feet up on the desk and sighed theatrically.
‘It’s a deal. You do this for me, and I’ll get you in there tomorrow, Toots. I promise.’
‘I bet you say that to all the girls,’ I said. But, for once, he didn’t even crack a smile.
I sat there for two hours, watching through the office window. It was a warm day, the sun bouncing off the stone sidewalks, but there was a strange feel to it that seemed to drop the temperature. Military vehicles whined up and down the main street, packed with soldiers. German soldiers, their hands on their heads, were marched in the opposite direction. Small huddles of German women and children stood stock still on street corners, apparently wondering what was to become of them. (Later I heard they were called in to help bury the dead.) And all the while, in the distance, the shrill siren of ambulances told of unseen horrors. Horrors I was missing.
I don’t know why Danes was so worried: nobody seemed to give this building a second look. I began a piece, screwed up the paper, drank two cups of coffee and smoked half a pack of cigarettes, and my mood grew darker and darker. I began to wonder if this wasn’t all a ruse just to keep me away from the action.
‘Come on then, Krabowski,’ I said, finally. ‘Show me around this joint.’
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